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Donnie Shell talks about the profound impact Bill Nunn had on his career and life

Updated: Jun 14


(Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)


This past Tuesday, the Steelers partnered with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) to host a panel discussion about the legacy of Nunn and his impact on the Steelers' franchise, the future of scouting and the NFL's connection to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.


This virtual panel was introduced by Nunn's granddaughter, Cydney Nunn, and was moderated by NMAAHC's Curator of Sports Dr. Damion Thomas. The four panelists were Brandon Hunt, Steelers pro scouting coordinator, Donnie Shell, former Steelers safety and 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, Jarrett Bell, NFL columnist for USA Today Sports and James "Shack" Harris, co-founder of the Black College Football Hall of Fame.


Shell shared a story on how Nunn was the reason why he went to Pittsburgh, instead of going to Houston or Denver. Shell's college teammate Barney Chavous was drafted by the Broncos the year before, so Shell planned on going to Denver, but his college coach at South Carolina State Willie Jeffries and Nunn convinced him that the Steelers were the best organization for him.


"He signed me as an undrafted free agent," Shell said via Teresa Varley of Steelers.com. "I had the chance to go to Houston or Denver. This is what sold me on the Steelers. He said Coach (Chuck) Noll doesn't care what school you went to. He likes players who are self-motivated and are going to work hard. That did it. My buddy was drafted by Denver the year before, and I was going there. When Bill shared that with me, I said I need to be in Pittsburgh.


"It was amazing to have him there to talk to. I went to South Carolina State University, an HBCU and I was around people like me for four years and then you come to an organization that is predominantly white, and you see this guy is over training camp, running the entire camp. I thought it was unbelievable. That was such a great move by the Steelers because he made you feel welcome and comfortable in the environment, especially when you see someone of your own race in that position. It relaxes you."



Nunn was a mentor for Shell as a young man just entering the NFL and was someone who he could always lean on for advice.


"We had side conversations that no one ever knew about. He was a confidant. If I had some issues, if I didn't do well in practice, I would talk to Bill and it wouldn't go any further than that. He would sit me down and say keep working hard and doing what you are doing, you will be fine. When you are young, that gave you encouragement to keep working hard. Nobody ever knew about that."


Shell also shared a story of his final season with the Steelers, in 1987 when he was 35 years old and shocked scouts with his 40-yard dash time.


"Bill was kneeling on one knee to time us," Shell said. "I ran my fastest time in my career, a 4.55. He came up to me and looked at me in the face and said how did you do it. I said Bill didn't you not tell us to improve every year and get better. He said, this is your 14th year, you are 35 years old. He was surprised by that. That was the first time I spoke to Bill and he was surprised by an athlete doing something."


Like the rest of the panelists during the group discussion, Nunn had a profound impact on Shell's career but also his life.


"I was honored to be a part of this group discussion to talk about one of my mentors and friends, who meant so much to my life," Shell said. "I don't know if he realized it or not, but just being around Bill, his professionalism, the way he carried himself in his life, it meant a lot to me and had a great effect on me. He never would have thought that. That is the way he was, unassuming. That was Bill. That is who he was. He made people gravitate to him. You wanted to be with him. You wanted to be in his presence to listen to some of the wisdom that he had."


Both Shell and Nunn will be formally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer where they'll be enshrined into football immortality. Shell is a part of the 2020 Centennial Class and Nunn a member of the 2021 Class. The ceremony for the Centennial Class of 2020 is on Saturday, Aug. 7 and the Class of 2021 will be enshrined on Sunday, Aug. 8.


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